Comparing Khan Academy and Wikipedia

Salman Khan said on The Colbert Report last week that he uses Wikipedia as the starting point for some info in his lectures. That’s not as much of a concern as it may sound; the more interesting comparison is what’s the difference in the sites?

Khan says the goal is “providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” Wikipedia wants to give everyone access to the sum of all human knowledge.

So aren’t they basically repeating each other?

They may share some content, but if you want to be taught something it is easier to learn it from someone who already has the knowledge, rather than reading it. Even if that person that already has the knowledge is teaching you through a video.

Wikipedia can certainly help with school work, but if you know nothing about a topic you want somebody that will start with the basics and work through to the tough parts. Reference sites and books, like encyclopedias and Wikipedia aren’t necessarily set up like that.

Hopefully you have an expert on the topic who can explain it too. I’ve had some teachers who know their stuff, but suck at explaining it to people who don’t. For guys like Khan and Stephen Hawking, the genius lies not only in their understanding of the topic, but the ability to explain it through simple terms.

Wikipedia requires reading, Khan Academy requires listening and watching. This may be a bigger topic than most realize. Give a young kid a video about addition and another the Wikipedia article about it and it won’t take long to see which one will pick up the topic first.

Video also means that learners know when the lesson is over. Wikipedia’s addition article has over 5,000 words. Nobody is going to try and tackle that all at once, but where is a good stopping point?

Wikipedia has the advantage in that it’s got a much wider topic range—even if Khan does make videos for the next 80 years (and it’ll probably be longer, but that’s for another post) he still won’t match the amount of content Wikipedia has—or will have. What he will do, is give people a strong enough foundation in topics so that they will be able to move on to Wikipedia and keep learning there.

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